528375 PTE. J. BRIERLEY. C.M.G.C.
Joseph Brierley was born on 29 December 1891 in Rochdale. His father was John William Brierley (b. 1860 in Saddleworth), a carder in a woollen mill. His mother was Alice Ann Shaw (b. 1858 in Mossley). Alice was previously married to Joe Haigh (1858-1887), and she and John William were married in 1889. They had two children but only Joseph survived. In 1911, the family was living at 44 Crown Street, Rochdale, and Joseph was working as a clerk in a cotton mill.
On 17 October 1911, Joseph embarked at Liverpool on the RMS Adriatic, bound for New York. In the passenger lists, Joe gives his occupation as clerk and his destination as Kearny, New Jersey. It looks as though he was heading for a specific job as this is where he settled, living at 72 Johnston Avenue, Kearny. He worked as a foreman (possibly in a timber yard).
Joe completed a US Draft Registration Card in 1917, but he did not enlist with the US Army, instead he went to Toronto, Ontario, where he attested he was willing to serve in the Canadian forces on 9 August 1917. He gives his mother as his next of kin and by this time she and John William were living at 82 Louisa Street, Smallbridge, Rochdale. Joe was 5’ 6” tall and had a 33” chest. He had a number of small scars but was judged otherwise fit for service. He was assigned service number 528375 and posted to the Canadian Machine Gun Corps. After training, Joe was ready to leave Canada for Europe in October 1918. He left aboard HMT Victoria but never made it to England.
HMT sounds like it might stand for something grand like His Majesty’s Troopship, but it is much more prosaically a Hired Military Transport. Joe had arrived in America aboard one of the fastest and most luxurious ships of the age, he would leave on what was effectively a coffin ship.
HMT Victoria sailed from Quebec on 6 October 1918 with 1,076 Canadian soldiers on board. While Victoria was still moored in Quebec City, thirty cases of influenza were admitted to its hospital. The ship’s doctor later claimed that he had asked the Quebec medical officer in charge at the docks, a Lieut. Col. Kerr, to remove sick soldiers from the vessel before it sailed. He said “no” and flippantly remarked that “your ship [will] become a hospital ship anyway”. The Victoria was ordered to cast off.
The Victoria left port with a full-fledged epidemic already raging on board. When it arrived in England on 18 October, 28 deaths on route from influenza and broncho-pneumonia were confirmed. A court of enquiry was subsequently held into the circumstances and it concluded: “The evidence shows that whilst it was realised that the boat was not adapted for Trans-Atlantic Troop Transport Service it had been made as [accommodating], clean and comfortable as possible and it was a question of Military exigency as to whether it was not in order to use it to transport troops across the Atlantic [or] as to whether steps should have been taken to reduce the number of men placed on board such a ship when an epidemic was known to be prevalent.”
The cruel facts were evident: the best ships had been sunk and now any ship that would float had to be used to transport troops; given the high number of casualties in France, the maximum number of replacements had to be transported as quickly as possible. If several dozen soldiers died so that thousands could be transported, that was the price that had to be paid.
See: Mark Osborne Humphries, The Limits of Necessity. In Maghda Farni and Esyllt W. Jones, Epidemic Encounters: Influenza, Society, and Culture in Canada, 1918-20. UBC Press, 2012. pp. 28-29.
Joe died of broncho-pneumonia on 10 October 1918. He was 26 years old. To add to the ignominy, his body was not returned for burial – he was buried at sea.
There are various theories about where the flu pandemic originated; one suggests the military camp at Étaples, another suggests it came from a military camp in Texas. Here is evidence that the disease was spreading from the New World to the Old World in the autumn of 1918, and major troop concentrations and movements were a significant vehicle in its spread.
Service No: 528375
Date of Death: 10/10/1918
Regiment/Service: Canadian Machine Gun Corps
Grave/Panel Reference: Panel 2
Cemetery/Memorial: HALIFAX MEMORIAL, Halifax, Nova Scotia.